Benjamin Lozovsky’s Colombia

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During the opening night of the Biannual Carnival Del Diablo, in the town of Rio Sucio, Caldas, festival goers gather around the town hall in anticipation of the start of the welcoming parade. Wearing masks and robes, and carrying bizarre devil effigies, it’s a scene of equal parts traditional European pageantry and macabre, malevolence, and mysticism. Despite being one of the largest and most unique celebrations in the country, with nearly 200 years of history, the festival is almost unknown outside its general vicinity.

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Even in the most rural places, life always thrives along the roadways throughout Colombia. A woman from the Caribbean coast dances in the middle of the Santa Marta-Riohacha highway in a traditional red dress. In Colombia, it often feels like song and dance could break out at any moment. It’s a wonderful feeling of intoxicating expectations. The photo was captured from a moving vehicle.

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Colombia has a large and diverse indigenous population; 87 different tribes make up 3.4% of the entire country. The largest group are the Wayuu, a matrilineal society that live in the vast isolated, desert expanses of the northern La Guajira peninsula. Despite large numbers and a long, vibrant history, the tribe suffers greatly from a lack of water, jobs, and resources, and a dark legacy of violence against them. La Guajira has become the second poorest region in Latin America. Along the dusty track leading to the remote upper Guajira, Wayuu children set up make shift tolls and check points; the attempt to block the few cars that pass by from advancing by holding up thin ropes or chains until they are paid a small fee of money, candy, or water. Most cars just simply drive by, the children dropping the chain at the last second with a helpless frustration on their faces.

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In the tiny hamlet of Buenos Aires, A typical example of Antioquian pueblo architecture is on display. The region (as well as neighboring Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindio), known as Paisa country, is saturated with brightly colored doors and window sills; in slightly larger towns, taller buildings highlight their different color motifs on their myriad balconies. This tiny village sits in between Jardin and Tamesis, two of the most charming, untouched towns in the Antioquian coffee region. Until several years ago, the crumbling road connecting these two marvels was highly dangerous, due to FARC guerilla activity in the area. Like much of Colombia though, it has finally opened up.

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Midway through the enigmatic and stirring Carneval del Diablo, in Rio Sucio, Caldas, a 30-foot Devil sculpture emerges as the centerpiece of the festivities. It is central to all activities. Each festival, a new devil is constructed. After a week of celebration, the festival is brought to a close on the night of the seventh day with the dramatic ritual, La Quema Del Diablo (the burning of the devil). Just before midnight, in front of the Iglesia Nuestra Señora De La Candelaria, the giant effigy is doused with accelerants and set ablaze. When the fire finally subsides, the festival is officially complete.

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A farm owner stands on his land adjacent to Laguna De Tota. At 55 square kilometers, the high-altitude lake in central Boyacá is Colombia’s largest. The soil around the lake is incredibly fertile, and its shores and surrounding hills are saturated with farms. In fact, the name Tota means “land for farming” in a local indigenous dialect. Laguna de Tota and its surrounding areas were sacred to the ancient Muisca people; the valley below the lake was known as “Sugamuxi, “or “valley of the sun.” Despite being three hours from Bogota, the lake sees few visitors. As with most of Colombia though, it seems poised to change rapidly.

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“Quieres comprar mi finca?”

Did that poncho-covered, donkey-totting man really just ask me if I wanted to buy his farm? My Spanish was proficient, but I still assumed I had misunderstood. Asking for photos of new acquaintances often elicits a request for a gaseosa (soda) or galletas (cookies) or maybe even a ride, but it rarely involved a real estate proposal. (I had leapt out of our car immediately when I saw him ambling down the side of the road,) Yet once my Colombian companions reached us, they confirmed his request. Santiago, the owner of the finca, wanted to retire and spend more time with his grandchildren. Who could blame him? The life of a campesino in the rural expanses of Colombia was far from easy. It felt as if he had been waiting patiently for years, for some outsiders to appear so he could offer up his life’s work and family heritage (birthright). But it wasn’t just money and security he sought. There was an enormous sense of pride for his land, a reverence he craved to share with the outside world.  A world that until far too recently, was completely out of reach.
The myriad colored doors and balconies of Colombia have finally relinquished their tight shutters of isolation. For decades, Colombia, an endlessly diverse and historic country, was reduced to a one-dimensional carcass, bloated with war and drugs and malevolence. At least by external eyes. Colombian pride towards its glorious land and traditions never diminished. Even as it often took backseat to survival, it kept the fraying fabric of society strong and contiguous enough to withstand forces that would leave most countries beyond repair. Instead, a state once on the brink of failure has catapulted to the front line of world leadership in innovation and reconciliation.

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Its easy to see the results. The soaring new reaches of growing skyscrapers in Bogota; the tech-infused sustainability and livability of a reinvented Medellin; a national peace process between two hated rivals from opposite political spectrums, both with blood-stained hands too saturated to fully clean, bringing with it with a real chance of rapprochement. These are the headlines. They are a futuristic distillation of the best Colombia has to offer, and an outstretched hand to the rest of the world to say, “hey, we are ready to join you now.”

While those notions matter, the now does not explain the why.  Colombians have long invested in demarcating between urban, and Colombian, life. Within the largest Metropolis, the intimate feeling of a pueblo parque is never fleeting. The maintenance of rituals, cultural behaviors, dichos, cuisines, dialects, and festivals on a micro level – each department and county and town becoming a natural and cultural world unto its own – creates an active necessity at an individual level. Its an empowering role, humans themselves becoming the hardened tar sheltering their own fragile bits of spirit and history. In turn, tradition and culture wrap themselves around their participants, a survival blanket during the darkest and coldest of nights.

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All of this micro diversity in ecology and culture makes Colombia a hell of a place to explore. Nearly every step provides for an opportunity to experience something few outsiders, let alone many other Colombians, have done or seen. Take the town fair. With the ubiquity of local town festivals, macabre cultural gems like Rio Sucio’s 200-year-old Carneval del Diablo are virtually unknown outside the surrounding hills of Caldas and Antioquia.

In neighboring Supia, villagers told me they never even bothered making the 10km trek for the biennial celebration of devils and the afterlife, infused with local pagan traditions and Spanish Catholic pageantry and world class salsa concerts and endless salchipapas. “Too bizarre,” some would say. We have our own festival, others grumbled. It seemed like they were really missing out.

Their feria didn’t have decadent costumes planned years in advance. Nor did it have giant parades with nightmarish creatures led by a stylish junta of festival leadership looking more like courtesans than campesinos. In Rio Sucio, there were gangs of gutter punks and goths from all over Colombia that somehow made it to the remote mountains of the central Cordilleras. There was an endless flow of fermented guarapo, a slightly sour mead-type drink I have yet to find again throughout the country, that made tequila look prudish. Devil horns and capes and devil lights and devil jewelry and devil foam accoutrement. Midway through the seven drunken days of celebration, a 30-foot devil effigy emerged. It was central to everything, in the middle of every crowd and dance party and bachata swoon. The party reached its fever the day after the great devil sculpture made its appearance. It felt more like a living thing, undulating with the slight movements of the men standing below, tasked to carry it around. He had a smaller female devil companion, although at times the distance between them seemed both physical and palpable. The devil himself persisted and maintained his influence until the last night, the seventh day of the festival. A funeral march and service, its participants dressed all in black, unfolded. The remembrance? In honor of Beelzebub himself. The giant devil was then doused with accelerant and lit aflame. Clouds of black smoke billowed out of its eyes. Across the square, his beloved companion was slowly burning away as well. They faced each other, together again at least as structures cracked and imploded. Once their smoldering ashes were ready to be collected, the party was done. The people in Supia barely batted an eye.

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Colombia’s incredible self-sustaining factors and heterogeneity are no more evident than in the faces of its people. There are 87 different indigenous groups still in existence. Most are hidden in deeply remote areas of the country; some have assimilated, while many have withheld their consciousness from absorption into the collective. For nearly all, life is a struggle. And strength is not always found in numbers.

The Wayuu make up the largest indigenous group in Colombia, yet their poverty is truly on a staggering level. They are the near exclusive inhabitants of the remote desert state of La Guajira; the upper Guajiran peninsula is the second poorest region in Latin America, just behind Haiti. With zero infrastructure, practically no jobs, and even less water, many barely eek out an existence. But for as hardened as they might have to be, the Wayuu are surprisingly wonderful, warm hosts. They have a nurturing sense to their survivalist mentality. It’s a direct correlation to their social structure; the Wayuu are a matrilineal society, with women having leading roles in government, religion, and daily family life. I have no doubt that the Wayuu would have long faded away if it wasn’t for the strength of their women. Men running the show in the upper Guajira would have ended miserably.

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It takes two days to get from Riohacha, the capital of the Guajira state, to Punta Gallinas, the northern most tip of the continent and one of the few settlements in the most remote parts of La Guajira. Its filled with lots of the most beautiful nothing you can imagine. Nothingness dotted with cacti and desert fields of yellow, red, blue, and brown hues. Barren lands dotted with verdant bays and flamboyances of flamingos. Wayuu children hold up chains along the way, setting up make shift tolls where the fee is candy, biscuits, or water. Some of their mothers and older siblings sell fresh shrimp and watermelon, one of the few ways to make some extra money out there. Wayuu men pass by on rickety bikes, making 50km treks to find work at a far—off port. Once you reach the end of the continent, you find sand dunes as big as high-rises, crashing into the awaiting arms of an azure Caribbean Sea. It feels like a place nature forgot about, that was left for humans to sculpt into their own beautiful, flawed image. Why visit such a remote, underprivileged, yet stunning area? It helps remind us – both traveler and local – that everyone has something worthwhile to offer the world, and every step is worth taking.

Which is why, deep in the department of Boyacá at La Laguna De Tota, Colombia’s largest lake and one of its most fertile areas, I considered Santiago’s offer hard. Nevemind that I couldn’t nearly afford it. At $300,000 for more land than I could even see, it seemed like a great deal. We had driven the lake circuit, eating fresh trout in Aquitania, swimming in the natural sand beach of Playa Blanca, filling up on Merengon and other sticky desserts in lovely little Iza. I had again fallen in love with another new, barely discovered Colombian destination. If there is one thing that unifies Colombia, other than coffee or Aguardiente, its that every next little place will draw you in with its own unique charm. If nothing else, it’s a form of self-preservation. If only I had some investors. I hear real estate is a great form of self-preservation too.

Photographer: Benjamin Lozovsky